Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations says the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for the Pacific on the need for regional cooperation.
“If the world ever needed confirmation of why multilateralism is important, this is it,” says Ambassador Dr Satyendra Prasad. “This pandemic has inflamed the whole of the world in a few months, and not a distant corner… is immune from it.”
Ambassador Prasad says the world needs to work together to develop, test and distribute vaccines, and produce and supply ventilators, medical equipment and information and knowledge.
“That is a confirmation of why we need multilateral agencies such as the WHO, such as the UN to share perspectives and understanding on how we deal with the pandemic.
“In the Pacific it's also a reminder, a wake up call to us that we need to co-operate as all of the cases of course are imported. But from Fiji of course it can spread to Tuvalu, from the North Pacific it can potentially spread into Melanesia because of shipping lines and because of flight patterns etc. So amongst ourselves as a Pacific island group of countries, we need to co-operate."
In response to criticism of the WHO’s handling of the pandemic from the United States government and other quarters, Ambassador Prasad says the focus of the world now should be on containing and crushing COVID 19, and the time for reflection will come.
“We understand that in the international system there are frustrations and there's anger and there's the divergence of views and there's competition as there always has been, but in a very forceful and powerful way this [pandemic] has reminded ... the smallest and the largest countries in the world of the value and the intrinsic importance of working together cooperatively and collaboratively and seeking a solution to what is truly a global problem.”
“This whole system is trying it's best in unfortunately very difficult circumstances,” he says.
“When we have come past this, there will be a time for the international system to look at what worked well and what did not work well, and learn the right lessons and apply it, ensuring the systems are much better and stronger by the time the next pandemic comes, but today is not that day.”
The Pacific’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to lead to increased scrutiny of health budgets and investments in our region.
However first there are the very pressing questions of how to scale up response in individual countries and territories, best leverage regional expertise and cooperation, maintain public health messaging that is relevant to Pacific communities, and prepare for second and subsequent waves of infection.
When Islands Business first interviewed Sunia Soakai, the Deputy Director, Public Health Division, at the Pacific Community, only five countries had COVID-19 testing capabilities: Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guam and Papua New Guinea. Since then other Pacific locations have come online. Palau has begun random testing with equipment donated by Taiwan. American Samoa is doing limited local testing, while still sending samples to Hawaii. The Northern Marianas has taken delivery of kits from a South Korean manufacturer, and its government aims to test every resident.
The most efficient way of facilitating local testing in our region, says Soakai, is to use custom-made cartridges in machines already in place for TB testing. The joint Incident Management Team of which SPC is a member (see p13) has placed orders for the cartridges and the consumables that go with them.
“No firm date has been set by the manufacturer [for delivery]” Soakai says, “but given that the Pacific is a region that has limited capacity, WHO and UNICEF have provided their support and the manufacturer has agreed to provide priority for the Pacific.”